Military Embedded Systems

Fire and finish: The middle of the kill chain


December 22, 2017

Ray Alderman

VITA Standards Organization

WARFARE EVOLUTION BLOG: As stated in previous articles, we need to reduce the complete kill chain down to 10 minutes or less, according to General John Jumper. So, all new systems and weapons must fit inside the kill chain somewhere (find, fix, fire, finish, feedback). And, they must speed things up significantly. We also established that the latest radar, sonar, SIGINT, IMINT, and other sensor systems fit in the find and fix phases. Now, it?s time to take a look at some of the latest developments going into the fire and finish phases.

If you are a fervent reader of this series, you already know that we are shrinking the find and fix phases down to a few minutes or less. And, you also know about the distance-time problem with our weapons: the travel time from the firing location to the target is too long (distance divided by speed = time). That’s the gap between the fire and finish phases we must compress. Let’s explore some examples. In 2000, intelligence sources put Usama Bin Laden at Tarnak Farms in Afghanistan, but it would take over three hours to bring our cruise missiles within range, fire those missiles, and hit his location. In 1998, intelligence sources said UBL was at Khost, Afghanistan. By the time the missiles arrived on target, UBL had left almost two hours earlier. A cruise missile flies at 550 MPH. If we want to hit an identified target within ten minutes, as General Jumper requires, those cruise missiles must be no more than 92 miles away. Our missiles were onboard ships at sea both times, nearly 1,000 miles away.

There are three ways to reduce the fire and finish phases of the kill chain: speed, stealth, and proximity. There’s also evasion, but we’ll get to that later.


We can’t always have weapons within 92 miles of targets. At longer distances, if we want to hit targets in 10 minutes or less, we must have weapons with faster travel-times. That’s where the Boeing X-51 (Waverider) hypersonic missile fits in the kill chain. But, we need some definitions before probing further. Subsonic aircraft and missiles travel at less than Mach 1 (less than 767 MPH, 12.8 miles per minute, 0.2 miles per second). Supersonic aircraft and weapons fly at speeds of Mach 1 to Mach 5 (up to 3599 MPH, 59.9 miles per minute, 0.99 miles per second). Hypersonic missiles and aircraft fly at Mach 5 to above Mach 20 (15,345 MPH, 256 miles per minute, 4.26 miles per second). Basically, hypersonic platforms travel at 1 to 5 miles per second.

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There are two versions of hypersonic missiles: (1) hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs), that ride to high altitude on traditional missiles and then glide down to their targets, and (2) hypersonic cruise missiles (HCMs) that are powered by rocket motors in the boost phase, and scramjet engines in the cruise phase. HCMs can fly at much lower altitudes and avoid detection. These weapons can hit a target anywhere on earth in less than an hour.

In July 2017, an X-51 flew at Mach 5.1 (3913 MPH, 65.2 miles per minute, 1.09 miles per second). To be inside our 10-minute goal, that weapon can be located 652 miles from the target. There are rumors about making the X-51 fly at Mach 10 (7672 MPH, 128 miles per minute, 2.1 miles per second) in the future. It could then hit a target 1278 miles away in 10 minutes. If we had Mach 10 cruise missiles in 1998 and 2000, we could have hit UBL in about eight minutes from 1,000 miles away, no problem.

Think these speeds are unusually high? In August 2011, the HTV-2 (Hypersonic Technology Vehicle) flew at Mach 22 for 3 minutes before experiencing an anomaly in flight, probably from the heat generated by air friction, and crashed into the Pacific. That’s 16,880 MPH, 281 miles per minute, 4.69 miles per second. The Air Force term for this nasty crash is RUD: a "rapid unscheduled disassembly."

The ultimate high speed weapon is a laser, and we are developing and deploying them now. The system is called LaWS (Laser Weapon System). The USS Ponce has a 33KW laser operational, but it’s used for destroying incoming anti-ship missiles and enemy speedboats in attacks. They have plans to test the laser at 150KW soon. The U.S. Army is testing 50 kilowatt to 100 kilowatt laser weapons mounted on the Stryker combat vehicle. Their mission is to destroy incoming artillery rounds, helicopters, and enemy ground vehicles in attacks. Laser beams travel at 186,000 miles per second. Travel time for the beam to hit a target 1000 miles away is about 0.005 seconds, but we don’t have the power to do that just yet. Present laser weapons are only good for a mile or so.


Hypersonic weapons are expensive and bulky. In many instances, it is easier to move slow conventional weapons closer to the targets before firing, using stealthy aircraft. That’s what the supersonic F-22 and F-35 are all about. We explored the mysteries of stealth in a previous article here.

The F-22 can fly at 1498 MPH (24.9 miles per minute, 0.42 miles per second) with a radar cross section of 0.0001 square meters. The F-35 can fly at 1199 MPH (19.99 miles per minute, 0.33 miles per second) with a radar cross section of 0.005 square meters. The F-22 has a combat radius of 869 miles, and the F-35 is 677 miles. So, the F-22 can hit a target 249 miles away in 10 minutes and return unmolested. The F-35 can hit a target 199 miles away in 10 minutes and return, also unmolested. Obviously, we need more range. That’s where the new SR-72 comes into play. First flights of the experimental plane occurred in July in California. According to the specifications, it will fly at Mach 6 (4603 MPH, 76.72 miles per minute, 1.28 miles per second). No figures have been released for the radar cross section, but I suspect it will be something close to the F-22. And no combat radius has been specified, since the original versions will be used for reconnaissance and spy missions. At Mach 6, this plane could hit a target 767 miles away with conventional bombs in 10 minutes. What we're doing here is mixing both speed and stealth to meet Jumper’s 10-minute goal. In late November, numerous loud unexplained booms were reported over the deserts of Arizona for several days. When contacted, the Air Force denied conducting any test flights in the area. The SR-72 can fly across Arizona at 80,000 feet in about 4 minutes, west to east.


When speed and stealth are not available, we must have conventional weapons positioned closer to the targets. That’s where Loitering Attack Munitions (LAMs) with explosive warheads come to the party. Think of them as kamikazi drones. We launch them, they go up high and fly around, and then dive at emerging targets on the battlefield. The first versions of LAMs were created by the Israelis (Delilah, Harpy, and Harop) and the U.S. military (Tacit Rainbow and Switchblade) in the 1980s. Their primary mission was SEAD (suppression of enemy air defenses): they detect intermittent radar signals from enemy surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites and attack that emitter’s location. Today, we can modify Tomahawk cruise missiles to loiter, find and fix, and destroy hidden or concealed targets. At least 17 countries have LAM weapons deployed today, according to the web. Many of these are very small versions launched by ground troops. Larger versions are launched from aircraft and ships. They are slow (subsonic), but they’ll hit in 10 minutes or less because they are closer to their targets.


Previously, we discovered that the “find” phase of the kill chain has an “identify” sub-phase. And “tracking” is a sub-phase of the “fix” phase. Well, the “fire” phase has a sub-phase too: Evasion. This is where our electronic warfare (EW) systems fit in the kill chain. Jammers and radar spoofers allow our weapons to travel the shortest distance to the target without having to maneuver around defenses and waste time. We saw the Israelis do it when they hit the Iraqi reactor in 1981 (Operation Opera), and again when they destroyed the Syrian reactor in 2007 (Operation Orchard). Many other examples exist in the U.S. bombing missions during the Gulf Wars. Just understand that all EW systems fit into the evasion sub-phase, the gap between the “fire” and “finish” phases.

During the VietNam war, the Air Force had a weapon called “Lazy Dog” bombs. They were purely kinetic weapons (no explosive inside) targeted at enemy troops hiding under the jungle canopy. The bomb was actually a loose cluster of 17,500 solid steel darts with fins, each 2 inches long, 1/2 inch in diameter, weighing 1/2 ounce. Think of them as “steel rain”. Dropped from 3,000 feet, they could reach 500 MPH. Eight projectiles would hit in every square yard on the ground, each with the force of a 50-caliber machine gun bullet. Every dart contains enough kinetic energy to penetrate 9 inches of concrete. Enemy soldiers were found nailed to trees in the VietNam jungle after a Lazy Dog drop.

Project Thor takes this idea to a new level. Imagine a tungsten rod with fins, 24 feet long, 1 foot in diameter, weighing 24,000 pounds, launched from a “dispenser” in orbit above the earth, arriving on a ground target at Mach 10 (7672 MPH, 127.8 miles per minute, 2.13 miles per second). (Here’s a picture of the rods and the dispenser in space <>) These weapons are called the “Rods From God”. When the Rod hits, it will plow hundreds of feet into the earth, dumping massive amounts of energy in milliseconds. If you do your math (mass times velocity squared), you will immediately see that the energy released by this weapon is nearly equal to a ground-penetrating nuclear weapon, but without the fallout and contamination. The time for an ICBM fired from Moscow to hit Washington is 26 minutes and 40 seconds. Time from release to impact of a Rod, anywhere on the planet, is 20-30 minutes. General Jumper will love this weapon, but the Geneva Convention people are in a tizzy. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits countries from putting nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons in space. But, it doesn’t prohibit putting kinetic weapons like the Rods up there.

So far, our exploration has focused on big fast weapons, big fat targets, and lots of damage. We can’t use those weapons in an urban setting for fear of collateral damage and civilian casualties. How are we speeding-up the kill chain against enemy soldiers on the battlefield? ECND’s (enemy combatant neutralization devices) are the answer, better known as “slaughter-bots”.

Imagine a small quadcopter that fits in the palm of your hand, weighing only a few ounces, that operates totally autonomously, with cameras, AI processors, and facial recognition software, carrying a 3-gram high-explosive shaped-charge onboard. Program those drones with the basic characteristics of the enemy soldiers (ethnicity, sex, hair color, eye color, etc), and turn about 2,000 of them loose in a town held by the enemy. Give them an hour, and all those enemy soldiers are dead. Want to see slaughter-bots in action? Watch this video and think about the consequences <>.

The last phase of the kill chain is "feedback," and that’s just after-battle analysis of how the enemy, his weapons and soldiers, and our weapons and soldiers performed in the fight. Also, any intelligence gathered from captured computers and papers are put into the system. This is another example of where artificial intelligence fits into the kill chain. Massive computers, in a data center somewhere, grind through all the information and propose improvements to tactics and strategies for the next battle.

Astute readers of this series will see that we are beginning to integrate certain elements of the generations of warfare, warfare domains, strategic offsets, the OODA loop, and RMAs (revolutions in military affairs) into the kill chain. I introduced these five models of warfare in earlier posts. Previously, we integrated the Lind et al, Slipshenko-Gareev, and Qiao-Wang models of warfare generations into a single model. And we also integrated the Army, Navy, Air Force, and historical kill chain models into one single model, without any comment or controversy from readers. What we need to do next, for simplicity and clarification purposes, is integrate the five warfare models into a single model.

The integration of speed (3GW maneuver warfare), stealth (5GW warfare) and evasion (6GW warfare) is an example of what is going on with the SR-72. Everything military fits somewhere in one of these models, and every model fits somewhere in the kill chain. That statement presents us with two basic questions: how do we fit these five models together, and what do we have when they are integrated? This process will take some analysis (taking things apart) and some synthesis (putting things back together in a different order) to figure it out. The product of this process will be a quick-tempo high-precision incredibly-destructive totally-inescapable “kill web”, that replaces the kill chain. That is the subject of our next episode. So, remain seated, fasten your seat-belts, and keep your arms and legs inside this ride at all times.


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